Sucking heartily on life's half-time oranges

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Punched In The Face By Football

I am out of the loop. Seriously. I haven't watched live football for three years. In 2012, I got bored - as if a voice in my skull had said 'Seriously? But you could be writing novels, watching theatre, going to gigs, having A LIFE' and without waiting to hear any protests reached over and pressed the big red button that said 'I HEART FOOTBALL.'

And it all went black. 

But - there are some habits that are meant to be broken. So what better way to get myself back onto (or is it off?) the trundling football wagon than to go to Wembley to see Wycombe play Southend in the League Two play-off final. It was WEMBLEY, after all. I only knew one player. I wouldn't be able to shout for particular strikers to lurch forward or sing the latest Number One Hit Chants, but could clap merrily along, like the sort of proper FAIRWEATHER SUPPORTER I always derided. How times change.

Wycombe shouldn't have even been here. Under Gareth 'Rock of Ages' Ainsworth's tutelage, we'd been in promotion places until the last few weeks of the season, before slipping on the puddly line into the play-off places. Phil Brown's team - Ooo! Hull! Singing! No sleazy goatee these days! - had suffered multiple play-off crapiness and were probably right spoiling for a fight.

Walking up Wembley Way under a wan sky towards the arch we can see from our South London flat, I was reminded of something I hadn't missed one bit: the inane laddishness of it all. No matter that there were perhaps one girl in eight amongst the hordes, and kids, too; the overriding feel was of a filmy, boorish blokiness that I wasn't too happy to be a part of again. Probably eating a smoked salmon and quinoa salad on the Metropolitan line there whilst reading 'The Goldfinch' didn't help, ah ha ha.
Still, once the match started, it was like riding a bike. A crappy old Danon fold-up with squeaky brakes and a slight lean to the left in the case of WWFC, though Southend were no better. It didn't matter that I didn't know the name of every player, though I tried very hard to memorise them ('Brave? Was that Steve Brave'? No. It wasn't.); those chaps were in the colours with which I had dyed my hair and painted lovingly upon my lily cheeks and therefore I LOVED THEM AND THEY MUST WIN. So I added my excitable yelp to the - admittedly extremely unvociferous, in typical WWFC style - singing, and pretty quickly picked up any new chants, seeing as they mostly went 'Wanderers, Wandererrrs' in a sort of dopey, semi-monotonal tune, whilst leaping up and berate the ref/Southend in uncomely fashion at most available opportunities. I tried to ignore our mascot Bodger, who was looking like even more faded and seedy, like he'd been left in the back of a broom cupboard with a bottle of Tesco Value vodka. It was as if I'd never been away, frankly.

When you're watching football in an international stadium, it's easy to assume that the match will be spankingly glossy and fast-paced and of international standard, just like Eng - oh well, you know what I mean. But no. This was like going to the National Theatre to watch an am-dram production of An Inspector Calls, or to the Royal Albert Hall to see a band of thirteen year-olds with their first electric guitars. This was equivalent to a kickabout in a small local park. Played by seven year-olds. With their hungover dads standing around, shouting at them. For much of the match (distinguishing features: hoofing the ball; missing headers; running extremely slowly; failing to pass to a player on the same side), we were just rubbish. Though we had been preposterously unlucky with Sam Saunders going off injured after (count 'em!) 30 seconds. Southend were also just rubbish, though rather better than us in parts of the match, and with a disallowed goal. My husband Andy (neutral, wanting WWFC to win so I would be cheery), brother Daniel (WWFC all the way, though not a regular supporter) and I distracted ourselves with admiring the full-hipster beard and two-tone boots of one of the Southend subs, and the fuschia-pink-and-purple hues of our goalie Alex Lynch's kit (easily beating Dan Bentley's cataract-inducing tangerine). 
With no goals, it was to Extra Time with us all, and suddenly Wycombe got their game on, doing remarkable things such as HOLDING THE BALL and PASSING THE BALL and NOT BEING SCARED OF THE ACTUAL BALL. We got a set piece - thank god, as clearly this was the only way we'd ever get a goal - and Joe Jacobson tossed it over and Bentley helped it a little more over the line. BOOM! The rest of extra time was mostly ours (though we were utterly awful time-wastrels), the Wycombe fans around actually stood up and opened their mouths, delight falling out, and it was daring to look a little festive. Daniel and I were still biting our fingers, Gaz Ainsworth was getting a little, hhm, demonstrative on the touchline, and one Seasider chucked a ball down in a flagrantly tantrumy rage. It was all very exciting. We were going up. We were almost, just about, practically there, going up. Until, with 24 seconds to go - less last-gasp than the defibrillator actually being unpacked and hauled onto the pitch - Southend's sub Joe Pigott scored.

I'd never actually had this happen before. This saddest Wycombe moment for me was seeing them get relegated at Leyton Orient, but it wasn't a last day of the season shocker. Wembley had traditionally been all quartered-blue joy and jubilation, though it was in the early days of my Wycombe ardour, the last time being when I was a quivering thing of sixteen in the play-off final in 1994. And I hyper-ventilated with our own Boys' Own last-gasps at the best game of all time against Wimbledon in the FA Cup. But this. This was like being punched in the face by football. Not by a football, you realise. By football itself.

I'm currently trying out a digital hearing aid for my mini-me right ear and had thought, what better time to test it out than to get some surround sound football cacophony! Chant-phasing! Actually, I mostly got even more tinny versions of awkward team songs over the tannoy, but the worst thing - the worst thing - was hearing the Southend fans' throats split open the half-second after that ball went in. It would have been better to be half-deaf.

So, penalties, and it was best to start getting my gloomy face on. We had, after all, a sub goalkeeper (Alex Lynch, aged twelve), though he had looked very confident in this match. And many of the boys - Blues favourite, the rugged man-of-men Paul Hayes, Matty 'BBC Journeyman Journo' Bloomfield and others - were hobbling around as if walking on an acre of potatoes. And lo! So it came to pass. Darling little Lynch saved Ben Coker's strike, but Dan Bentley (with impressive distraction tactics that made him look like a shrimp on a daring escape bid from a pan of boiling water) eventually saved Ole Bloomfield's. As the goals stacked up, Daniel's hands began trembling and soon I was too, from knees to teeth, an alarmingly, speedily contagious disease for which there was no cure. 7-6 to them. And then Sam Wood's was deflected away and, ohhh, curses, there was the whole season gone in an instant. We clapped the boys until we could no longer bear the Seasiders' glee, and wandered to Finchely Road to gorge solemnly on Iranian food.

You've got to hand it to Gareth Ainsworth, though. Gareth is the first Wycombe manager that I'd happily go to Zizzi's with for a candlelit dinner. OK, the second. He looks less like Viggo Mortensen in 'Lord of the Rings' and now, with shorter hair and a natty, gangsterish suit, more like Viggo Mortensen in 'Eastern Promises' (ooo, I am now imagining him in that fighty Russian bathhouse scene - you know the one). Um, yes, anyway, what was I saying, yes, Gareth looks like a manager. A manager who cares about Wycombe and can hopefully stay there for a good little while, enough to get us up. Let's say next season.

Stupid punchy football. You pay loads of money only to get pulled into a corner and given a good duffing, left for nearly-dead in a pool of your own filth. And the annoying thing is that, having come back after a hiatus, it only makes me more of it

PS Here's Gareth post-match on BBC Sport. Choice quote: 'At Wycombe Wanderers you're in a family. You're in a family of Zen warriors who will run through brick walls for each other.' Next season: Wycombe Wanderers study with the angrily-laughing, beard-tossing guru from 'Kill Bill 2'!